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MINI-DOC: A Simple (Slightly Insane) Solution to Racist Statues

In democracies around the world, citizens are debating what to do about statues of slavers, imperialists, and prominent racists. At stake is how nations remember the crimes of their histories, and, in choosing how to remember them, what commitments they make to social justice going forward.


It’s June 2020. Around the world, statues of Confederates,** **slavers, and imperialists are under fire. One insightful instance is in Beaumont, Texas, where a city councilmember had this to say:

“I cannot support the current resolution without trying to help negotiate a compromise between those that would like the statue removed and those that would prefer it remain untouched. I propose to change the wording of the resolution to: “that the city manager is hereby authorized to remove the statue located at Wise Park in the city of Beaumont using professional services to remove and protect the integrity of the statue. Once removed, the statue will be sold to the highest bidder or donated to a museum..”(“Ok, um…so…)”

It’s easy to miss but there’s one really important thing buried in there. Councilmember Neild is proposing a compromise, seeking out a middle ground all sensible people could agree on, and what does he emphasize? “Remove and protect the integrity of the statue.” In other words, the statue shouldn’t be damaged - at least we can all agree on that.

But, should we? Is it really so obvious that monuments to evil should be protected, just because they’re monuments?

Most people, it seems, can agree on it. Even those who want statues of past evils removed are motivated by a belief in progress, that today, we are more civilized than we were then, and for the same reason, we are more civilized than to barbarically smash those icons.

Ask the other side, those who say such statues should stay standing as a way to remember our history, and it’s even simpler—

“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history; desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments; tear down our statues; and punish, cancel, and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control. We are not conforming. That's why we’re here, actually.”

Because for people like Trump and his cheering supporters, it was never about just preserving history in some neutral, measured way. “Our beautiful monuments,” he said. If you watch this speech, there’s no concern for history. These statues are merely pawns in the culture war. Set aside for now that many of these statues—including in Beaumont—were built to glorify the Confederacy.[1]

Monuments, whatever their intentions, never just preserve history. They preserve a particular version of history, and importantly, they impress that memory of the past on the public psyche. The fight over monuments and statues isn’t really a fight about history - everyone knows what happened - it’s a fight over public memory, a fight over how we ought to remember and view our history.

So even as advocates of removal insist,

“And the whole thing about “it’s our history”— everything is our history. Them putting it up is our history. Us taking it down is our history. That is our history. (That’s part of history too.) Everything we do is a part of our history. (Right.) There are things that you did that you will not do again. You can’t eradicate it from your life but you damn sure don’t have to celebrate it. And what he did was not worthy of celebration in the city of New Orleans. (Robert E. Lee.) The person who led the Confederate forces against the armies of the United States of America. And they lost. (They lost.) Where in the world are you gonna find a losing general with a statue in a major city of the country that won? No. Go ahead, look around. You tell me; when you find that statue, take a picture of it and show me.”

While removing statues doesn’t erase history, while it may even make history, without a public symbol reminding people of what they’re supposed to believe about the past, it leaves a void in the public memory about America’s civil war, or imperialism, or slavery. And while that is an improvement over having public symbols which communicate reverence for those evils, it is often important not just to forget them, but remember them differently.

And removing statues doesn’t really do that. An absence of a thing can’t tell any story, without some pair, a contrast that suggests what should be there. Ask yourself, what’s missing here?

It’s impossible to tell. What about now?

Now…it’s obvious — even impossible not to notice and wonder, “what happened to the pepper?”

Do the same with this:

And this:

And the point hardly bears explaining. Sometimes removing statues may be a good answer, but perhaps sometimes we should just behead them.

Instead of erasing the horrors of history from the public memory, this highlights them and denounces them unequivocally.

And this isn’t even a new idea. In fact, it’s old—very old, stretching back to Ancient Rome, where it wasn’t uncommon to re-evaluate some deceased politician or emperor and decide that, on balance, they’d made a massive mess of things. And once that judgment was rendered, the sentence would be harsh. Mosaics would be scrubbed clean of their likeness, and statues, yes, beheaded. These partial erasures were intended to reverberate, to let the empire’s inhabitants know in no uncertain terms that this figure should not be forgotten but remembered as a villain.[2]

You might say, “How’s this different from changing the plaques?” a solution that’s been rejected many times. Well, plaques are just words, and if words were as effective as symbols, instead of statues we’d just have plaques, and you’d be reading this in an article, not watching it in a video. Words don’t come close.

But the objections don’t end there.

**[00:25] **“Because a lot of people would say they want to stop at one set of statues, they may well do. But once you open this conversation, once you approach the subject from the principal of, let us eradicate those things from the past that were morally wrong and are unacceptable today. Then you cannot stop. Indeed a confederate statues. You put everything on the table.”

And sure, fair enough. Where to draw the line for which statues lose their head is the tricky part, though it really shouldn’t be that controversial to condemn the leaders of a treasonous rebellion that fought to protect the institution of slavery. However, we can’t settle that debate. We’re merely suggesting that there are some alternative methods besides removal of the statues that ought to be considered. And beheading isn’t the only one, either.

**[00:31] **“Even though a lot of our existence in America is rooted in a painful past, there's also this balance of public memory that even though there was a tragedy at 16th Street Baptist Church, there are so many other stories and different ways of looking at the civil rights movement. That is the power that I want us to start to celebrate. You know the outcome, the 1964 civil rights act or the integration of Birmingham.”

And it’s hard to argue with Mr. Leggs - indeed, we ought not just repurpose monuments to condemn the evils of the past but erect new ones to glorify virtues yet unrecognized. But if anything, such new symbols would be complementary, not contradictory, with headless statues. Aspiration and admonition can go hand in hand. And while positive aspiration may be more comfortable than the admittedly violent admonition of beheading monuments to evil, that discomfort may well be a virtue.

After all, is it really convincing to say that decapitation of statues is just too crude, too barbaric, too violent, when the practice of human bondage which such statues honor shed so much innocent blood and wrought such inhuman horror at a scale which is hard even to begin to comprehend? Indeed, if we cannot muster the strength to stare down a headless statue, it seems impossible we have the strength to begin to correct the evils of the past.


  1. Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, by the Southern Poverty Law Center, 3rd edition, 2022. ↩︎

  2. “Damnatio Memoriae and Black Lives Matter,” by Alex Zhang, in the Stanford Law Review blog, 2020. ↩︎


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